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Thursday, February 28, 2008
Florida did it but can balanced scoring lead Xavier to Final Four?

By Andy Glockner
ESPN.com

The hallmark of Florida's back-to-back national championship teams was the Gators' incredible scoring balance. In both title seasons, they put all five starters in double figures while never having one player average more than 14.3 points per game.

Drew Lavender
Point guard Drew Lavender is usually the engine that drives Xavier.
While having a quintet in double figures is not as rare as you think -- 19 Division I teams had at least five double-digit scorers last season -- it doesn't guarantee success. Only four of those teams actually made the NCAA Tournament last season, and only two -- the Gators and their Elite Eight opponent Oregon -- even won a game.

What was more unique about the Gators' MO was that they didn't have a true primary scorer. Of course, with three lottery picks in your lineup, it's easier to find a basket when you need one. Can you get away with that strategy sans future millionaires? Xavier is about to find out.

There's a lot to like about the current Atlantic 10 leaders that currently sit at 24-4 overall and 11th in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. The Musketeers are well coached and experienced. They're a terrific shooting team, currently in the top 40 nationally in 2-point, 3-point and free-throw shooting. They also defend well, rebound well, get to the line a good deal and keep opponents off it. It's not hard to see how collectively good the Musketeers are.

The Musketeers, though, are taking Florida's all-for-one offensive model to the extreme. Currently, six Musketeers, led by senior forward Josh Duncan, are averaging between 9.9 and 11.6 points per game. Incredibly, five of those six players have taken between 204 and 229 field goal attempts for the season. It's essentially basketball communism that works.

"We have seven different players who could score, and when they don't score in the same way, that's when you really can lend it to balance," said Xavier head coach Sean Miller. "To me, the [other] part of it is really having a team that's bought in to being unselfish, and clearly our team is unselfish."

Through 28 games, you can't argue with the success. But can this plan work all the way to San Antonio? If recent history is any guide, it would be rather unprecedented.

The following chart shows all the Final Four participants from the past 10 seasons that had five double-digit scorers.

Scoring Balance

Below is a chart showing the drop-off between scorers Nos. 1 & 5 among tourney teams from the past five seasons. The * next to Notre Dame in 2007 indicates that Kyle McAlarney wasn't eligible for the second half of the season, but was listed as the 5th scorer.

2007 Drop-off Seed NCAA Result
Florida 22.6% 1 National champ
Oregon 39.0% 3 Elite Eight
Notre Dame* 39.8% 6 First round
Niagara 50.0% 16 First round
2006 Drop-off Seed NCAA Result
Florida 23.2% 3 National champ
George Mason 19.7% 11 Final Four
Connecticut 32.2% 1 Elite Eight
Ohio State 34.0% 2 Second round
G. Washington 24.1% 8 Second round
2005 Drop-off Seed NCAA Result
North Carolina 35.4% 1 National champ
Illinois 36.5% 1 National final
Connecticut 23.5% 2 Second round
Cincinnati 33.3% 7 Second round
LSU 37.6% 6 First round
New Mexico 45.2% 12 First round
Texas 25.4% 8 First round
2004 Drop-off Seed NCAA Result
Duke 37.1% 1 Final Four
Wake Forest 40.0% 4 Sweet 16
Kentucky 36.4% 1 Second round
Seton Hall 42.6% 8 Second round
Washington 22.4% 8 First round
Murray State 30.8% 12 First round
La.-Lafayette 24.1% 14 First round
2003 Drop-off Seed NCAA Result
Arizona 27.7% 1 Elite Eight
Pitt 17.2% 2 Sweet 16
Wisconsin 36.4% 5 Sweet 16
W. Kentucky 24.1% 13 First round

Xavier looks to have a solid chance to win at least two NCAA Tournament games. The best comparables -- in terms of expected seeding and scoring balance -- are 2006 Florida, 2005 UConn and 2003 Pitt, two of which made it to at least the Sweet 16. If you look strictly at top-10 conference teams that had similar scoring balance, five of the nine made it to the second weekend or beyond.

Is Xavier a legitimate Final Four threat? Doing it this way would be rather unprecedented. Aside from the two Florida title teams, only one of the six other teams in the past decade to go that far had anything remotely close to Xavier's current 9.5 percent dropoff -- the miracle George Mason team from 2006. The other five, at least nominally, had a star or stars that stood out as primary options.

Miller is not fazed by suggestions that Xavier's extreme balance could ultimately be a negative. He believes his team's structure has helped it overcome injuries and weather individual shooting slumps, although those are qualities that could be more important over a 35-game season than in a knockout event. He also thinks his players' positional flexibility adds an extra dimension of effectiveness to the attack. Miller noted that Duncan, who actually comes off the bench now, can play the 5 and score in the post but also is the team's best 3-point shooter. C.J. Anderson starts at small forward but rarely shoots from more than five feet from the basket.

One thing seems certain: You can't maintain that kind of balance without a point guard who can orchestrate the plan, and Xavier has one in diminutive Drew Lavender, who transferred from Oklahoma two seasons ago. His first two college seasons in Norman were erratic, but since arriving at Xavier, he has evolved into the perfect ringleader for Miller's system. He's not afraid to shoot and is making 40.4 percent from 3-point range, but he's also maintaining a crisp 2.5-1 assist/turnover ratio as he makes sure the ball gets to the right guys in the right spots.

"We've had a number of different big plays being made [this season], and he seems to be involved with most of them because of who he is on our team," Miller said.

But what about crunch time? One of the knocks on Kansas, a viable Final Four threat itself, is that the Jayhawks have four players averaging between 12.1 and 13.5 points per game but lack a go-to scorer. Xavier senior guard Stanley Burrell, who has transformed himself from a single-minded scorer into a well-rounded threat who also is the team's defensive stopper, talks down the Musketeers' need for that kind of primary option.

Josh Duncan
Josh Duncan, who is Xavier's leading scorer, can score on the block or from 3.
"I felt that pressure in the past where I felt I had to make plays for us," he said. "It is really hard when you know and the other team knows the ball is coming to you and you have to make a play down the stretch."

Xavier has multiple players who are willing and able to make big shots. Against Saint Joseph's, Lavender set up B.J. Raymond for the late 3 that gave the Musketeers the lead for good. Against Rhode Island, Burrell, Lavender and Duncan took turns making long jump shots with the shot clock about to expire.

It doesn't seem to matter who takes the shot, as long as it's the best one the Musketeers can get under the circumstances.

"I think there's a certain gunslinger mentality [with a player who] wants to take the last shot and is not fearful of the consequences of making it or missing it," said Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli, whose Hawks, with five double-digit scorers themselves, are chasing Xavier in the A-10. "And I think there are several guys on Xavier that have that swagger about them."

Xavier's balance doesn't leave it without flaws or incapable of a bad performance. The Musketeers got ambushed by Arizona State's zone when they were without an injured Duncan and coming off a Crosstown Shootout win over Cincinnati. Maybe of more concern was the lopsided league loss at Temple, where the Musketeers found out what happens when they slack defensively against a team with explosive offensive options.

Since that loss to the Owls, though, the Musketeers have ripped off 10 straight wins in a deep conference and look primed to enter the NCAAs as a 3-seed, or maybe even a 2. There's no dark horse about this team anymore, no real connection to the underdogs who did everything but beat eventual NCAA finalist Ohio State in last year's second round. Burrell knows they now are the hunted, and he relishes being part of "the team that has the X on their back."

They already have a big one on their shorts. What's one more as they try to make history?

Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at bubblewatch@gmail.com.